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Invasion of the body snatchers: wearable devices are coming for you

Martyn Williams | March 31, 2014
Privacy and form factor are some of the big questions for this emerging category.

Into the Future
One thing's for sure: fitness trackers, smartwatches and glasses won't be where wearables stop.

Thalmic Labs has developed an electromyographic sensor called Myo that's worn on the arm and picks up electrical muscle activity to interpret movements and gestures. A demonstration of the $149 device shows how a user playing a video game can simulate drawing a gun and firing it. Another clip shows a person steering a drone by twisting his arm back and forth.

"The relationship between people and devices is getting closer," said Stephen Lake, CEO of the Ontario company. "People are willing to wear different technology."

While an armband might not be a stretch, how about a wig? Sony's Smartwig, revealed in a patent application, connects to a smartphone and might include a GPS, camera, ultrasound transducer and even a laser pointer. With enough sensors, the wig could read facial expressions by tracking the movement of skin, or figure out where a person is and what direction they're looking in. It might provide a discreet vibration when a message is received.

To be sure, the Smartwig isn't much more than a patent application right now. Sony has a few prototypes, but there's been no talk of a product.

A new communications protocol called Bluetooth Low Energy, which is just making its way into phones, is helping to push the industry forward.

"It enables devices to more easily and quickly connect and disconnect from other devices," said Thalmic's Lake. "It's really good when you're sending little packets of data. Traditionally it was a full-time connection, but Bluetooth LE sleeps and wakes and sends bits of data to bring dramatically longer battery life."

Intel jumps in
Wearables haven't escaped the attention of Intel, the world's largest chip maker.

At CES, Intel unveiled several prototypes based on a computer called "Edison." No bigger than an SD Card, Edison is a "full Pentium class PC" running Linux with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Intel showed a baby's "onesie" made by Boston-based Rest Devices, fitted with sensors that monitor the infant's temperature, pulse and breathing. By clipping an Edison-equipped toy turtle onto the onesie, the baby's vitals are broadcast to the parents. But instead of being sent to a smartphone, Intel showed coffee mugs that flash different colors depending on what the baby required.

Intel also showed a pair of ear buds with a built-in sensor that lets them act as a heart monitor as well as play music. And it showed a prototype smartwatch that works with a geo-fencing system to let parents know when their children stray off the route on their way to school.


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